Soccer is Politics

Soccer is Politics

(JMD in The American Interest)

JAMES M. DORSEY

 

Why Egypt’s repressive regime considers soccer fans one

of its biggest threats.

A

hmed (not his real name) is an Egyptian soccer fan

—and a fugitive. He has been expelled from

university, convicted twice in absentia, and sentenced

to two long terms in prison. He moves around

Cairo in a protective crouch, speaks in a low voice to

avoid being overheard, and looks furtively over his

shoulder as he organizes flash protests against the

government of General-turned-President Abdel

Fattah al Sisi.

Ahmed is a leader of a militant soccer fan group

called Ultras Nahdawy (“ultra” is a term for a

hardcore soccer fan first used in Italy). Like other

such groups, it is constantly in danger of being banned

by the Sisi government under new, sweeping

anti-terror legislation that targets dissent as much

as political violence. Ahmed sees Nahdawy,

founded by soccer fans as a Muslim Brotherhood

support group in 2012, together with the main

anti-Sisi student organization, Students Against the

Coup, as a healthy outlet for disaffected youth

at risk of radicalization. “We don’t like violence

but we are not weak”, Ahmad insists, sipping coffee

in a hip café in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood.

“Hope keeps us going. We believe that there still are

options. We created options on Tahrir Square. This

regime is more brutal [than the Mubarak regime] but

there still are options.”

Yusuf Salheen echoes Ahmed’s words. A 22-year-old

leader of Students Against the Coup, created in

2013 after security forces killed more than 600

people at a Brotherhood sit-in, he studies Islam

at Cairo’s prestigious Al Azhar University. Salheen

was luckier than Ahmed and more than 1,500 other

students who have been detained by security

forces, not to mention 2,000 others merely ejected

from their institutions of higher learning: He

defended himself successfully in a university hearing

called to debar him. “We are absolutely concerned that

if we fail things will turn violent. Going violent would

give the regime the perfect excuse. We would lose

all public empathy. We hope that Egyptians realize that

there are still voices out there that are not giving up

and are keeping protests peaceful despite all that has

happened”, he said.

The concerns of Ahmed and Salheen are real. Sisi

has brutally repressed all opposition, including the

Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned as

a terrorist organization immediately after the

military coup in 2013 that deposed Mohammed Morsi,

a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically

elected president. The crackdown has left disaffected

youth with a stark choice: Either apathetically accept

a status quo in which the government fails to

offer them any prospect of a socially and

economically viable future, or engage in violent

resistance. The student groups and soccer clubs try to

offer a third choice: nonviolent resistance.

W

ith stadiums closed to the public for much of the

past four years to prevent them from becoming

anti-government rallying points, militant soccer

fans have had fewer opportunities to live out

either their passion for their team or their frustration

with Egypt’s politics. Nonetheless, there are

multiple potential flashpoints to watch in the

coming months.

One is the final outcome of the retrial of 73

people accused of causing the deaths of 74

members of Ultras Ahlawy (fans of storied Cairo

club Al Ahli SC) in a politically motivated brawl

in the Suez Canal city in 2012. The details of what

happened in Port Said remain murky, but what is

clear is that the national security forces

manipulated the traditional rivalry between the

Ahlawy and Masri fans and allowed the deadly brawl

to proceed while ensuring that the Ahli supporters

could not escape.

The accused include supporters of Port Said’s Al

Masri SC as well as nine security officials and

executives of the club. Many people believe that

security forces began the brawl to punish Ahlawy

for its role in toppling President Hosni Mubarak

in 2011 and opposing the military government

that succeeded him. A court sentenced 21 of the Al

Masri fans to death in 2013, sparking a popular

revolt in cities along the Suez Canal that forced

then-President Morsi to declare an emergency and

deploy troops to the region.

A June retrial reduced the number of death

sentences to 11, but appeals are still pending. They

could well spark the next confrontation. Whatever

the court finally decides, one set of ultras—whether

Al Masri’s Green Eagles or Al Ahli’s Ultras Ahlawy

—is likely to express their anger at the verdict. Al

Masri fans have already protested against the June

development in the streets of Port Said.

A second court case and potential flashpoint

involves 16 members of the Ultras White Knights

(UWK), supporters of Al Ahli arch-rival Al

Zamalek SC, who are charged with causing the deaths

of 20 fans at Cairo stadium in February. Prosecutor

Hesham Barakat and Zamalek President Mortada

Mansour have accused the UWK of having accepted

funds from the Brotherhood in return for provoking

the stadium incident. Barakat asserted that some of

the alleged Brothers had confessed to planning and

funding the incident in an attempt to dissuade

foreign investors.

To many people, the charges seem trumped up.

Cairoscene, an Egyptian news website, opined that

the assertion of a conspiracy between the UWK

and the Brotherhood “seems ridiculous, considering

there was clear evidence that security was

mismanaged. Fans were forced to enter through

one singular metal cage, which ultimately collapsed.

At the same time police fired tear gas at the

crowds arguably fuelling the stampede that resulted

in many of the deaths.” The charges against the UWK

reinforced the conviction of the group, shared by

other ultras, that the regime is targeting them. ”We

have no confidence in the justice system or the

government’s willingness to ensure that justice is

served”, said one UWK member.

Meanwhile, the ban on spectators in Egyptian

stadiums, which was at the root of the Cairo

stadium incident, continues to keep unrest high

among fans. Repeated attempts to reopen stadiums

have stalled, with the government, the clubs, and

stadium owners failing to agree on what kind of

security would be needed to prevent a resurgence

of anti-government protests within the stadiums.

Testing the water before a relaxation of the ban,

Egypt’s interior ministry agreed to allow 25,000 fans

to attend a November 17 qualifier between Egyptian

teams for the 2018 World Cup qualifier against Mali.

The game took place without incident in a stadium

secured by the Falcon Group, a private security firm

closely tied to Sisi. (It provided security for his 2013

election campaign and began securing

universities with rebellious student bodies in the

same year, causing many deaths and even more

injuries.) This success may lead to a re-opening

of stadiums under tight security. However, alarmed by

the attacks in Paris that included a stadium, Egypt’s

authorities will probably follow Turkey’s failed

attempt to depoliticize stadiums by introducing

electronic ticket systems that register personal

details of spectators.

The fans got a chilling reminder of how the regime

views them from a leak to Al Jazeera earlier this

year. On an audio recording, Interior Minister

Muhammad Ibrahim, a member of the Morsi

government instrumental in overthrowing it and

facilitating the military takeover, is heard discussing

with senior officers of Egypt’s notorious Central

Security Force (CSF) how the government can

crack down on protesters. He suggests that the CSF

should shoot protesters using anything “permitted by

law without hesitation, from water to machine

guns.” The meeting on the tape is thought to have

occurred not long before a major anti-government

protest in November 2014, at which police killed

at least four people.

Ibrahim goes on to say that no attempt at political

change in Egypt would succeed without the

support of the military and the police—in his

words, “the strongest institutions in the state.”

 

E

gypt’s first groups of ultras emerged in 2007,

inspired by similar groups in Serbia and Italy formed

by militant fans who found each other online. The

European ultras expressed their aggressive support for

their clubs and artistic appreciation of the

game through intimidating chants, poetry, banners,

fireworks, flares, smoke guns, and continuous

jumping up and down during matches. The Egyptian

fans took up these passionate (and dangerous)

displays with enthusiasm. They also adopted the

ultras’ analysis of the power system governing

the sport’s professional teams. It defines the fans as a

club’s only true supporters, the club management

as corrupt pawns of a repressive government, and

players as mercenaries who offered themselves to

the highest bidder. The Egyptian fans embraced

the ultras’ principle, “All Cops are Pigs”, as their

own—a no-brainer in a country whose security

forces, to many the face of a repressive regime, are

its most hated institution.

The ultras’ power analysis emboldened them to

claim ownership of stadiums in a country that

tolerated no independent or uncontrolled public

space, and put them in direct confrontation with

security forces determined to uphold the established

order. But the ultras had an advantage: they

aimed at the Achilles’ heel of the Mubarak regime.

 

Aside from the mosques, the

stadiums were the only public

spaces that the government could

not simply shut down entirely,

Aside from the mosques, the stadiums were the

only public spaces that the government could not

simply shut down entirely, because nothing

evokes the kind of deep-seated passion in Egyptians

that soccer and religion do. Eager to crush the

threat but recognizing the political benefits of

influencing one of the most important activities in

the lives of Egyptian men, the regime had little

alternative but to fight for control.

The ultras’ regular clashes with security forces in

the stadiums made the games a magnet for

thousands of frustrated and angry youth, turning the

sum total of rival fan groups into one of Egypt’s

foremost social movements alongside the Brotherhood

and labor. By the time mass protests against Mubarak

erupted in early 2011, the ultras had become highly

organized, politicized, street fight-hardened shock

troops who formed the demonstrators’ first line

of defense against security forces, persuading the

protesters to stand their ground in Cairo’s Tahrir

Square.

Ahmed and Salheen hope to repeat that

performance in an environment that is far more

repressive and brutal than the Mubarak era. In a

replay of the ultras’ role in the toppling of

Mubarak and the protests against

subsequent military governments, Ahmed and

his fellow ultras form the front-line defence

against security forces in demonstrations on

campuses and in popular neighborhoods. They

use the same tactics of chanting, jumping up and

down, and using flares and firework they employed

in support of their clubs. Security forces have

killed some 17 members of Nahdawy, which has

branches in most Egyptian universities, in the past

two years.

Between protesting and avoiding capture (or worse),

Ahmed and Salheen have their plates full. Scores of

ultras and students are on trial for protesting on

campuses and in neighborhoods during the past two

years, as well as for soccer-related actions like the

storming of Zamalek’s headquarters and Cairo

airport’s arrival hall.

The regime targets ultras not only on the streets and

in the courts but also in the military, which asks

conscripts whether they belong to a militant soccer

fan group. Those that respond affirmatively are

singled out. “They were immediately ordered to do

100 push-ups during which an officer shouted at them:

‘You are the lowest creatures. You sacrifice yourselves

for your club, not for your religion or country’”, a

conscript who hid his affiliation recounted. At the

same time, fringes of Nahdawy and Students Against

the Coup’s audience of ultras and students

have grown increasingly radical.

“This is a new generation. It’s a generation

that can’t be controlled. They don’t read. They

believe in action and experience. They have balls.

When the opportunity arises they will do something

bigger than we ever did”, said one of UWK’s original

founders, who has since distanced himself from the

group. He said that Sisi would be unwise to repeat

Mubarak’s mistake of underestimating the

groundswell of anger and frustration among Egypt’s

youth at the closing of the stadiums to the public

and at the security forces’ strict control over university

campuses.

 

A

charismatic radical can rise fast in the loose

organization of the ultras. Said Moshagheb, a

mesmerizing, under‐educated soccer fan, was

representative of the thousands of angry young

men joining protests in Egypt—except he managed to

oust the UWK leaders and founders in a dramatic

coup in 2012 involving a melee on the pitch of an

Egypt-Tunisia game. Arrested in April 2015, he was

acquitted in May of charges that he had been

involved in a plot to kill Al Zamalek SC

President Mortada Mansour, but he remains

imprisoned. Sources close to the ultras as well as

Moshagheb’s family said the UWK leader had been

under police surveillance for some time for

smuggling arms from the Sinai, the home base for

jihadi groups linked to ISIS.

Other soccer fans have travelled to join the terror

group itself. A former leader of Ultras

Ahlawi in the Mediterranean port city of

Alexandria, Rami Iskanderiya, joined the Islamic

State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of

Syria and Iraq, and married a Syrian woman in the

group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. A third

ultra, Hassan Kazarlan, was in Turkey en route to

Syria when he was persuaded to return to Egypt

after security forces detained his father as a hostage.

Moshagheb, Iskanderiya, and Kazarlan exemplify

one response to the repression of the Sisi regime and

the violence that followed the general’s overthrow of

Morsi in 2013. Groups like Ultras Nahdawy and

Students against the Coup hope to stymie this

response. But it is difficult, and growing more so.

“Take Alf Maskan [an Islamist stronghold in

Cairo]”, said an ultra and student activist. “Alf

Maskan is a traditionally conservative, Islamist

neighbourhood. Youth have nothing to look

forward to. They are hopeless and desperate.

They join our protests but their conversation often

focuses on admiration for the Islamic State. They are

teetering on the edge. We are their only hope,

but it’s like grasping for a straw that ultimately is

likely to break.”

“Success for us is our survival and ability to keep

trying. The government wants to provoke us

into becoming violent. Two years later, we are still

active. . . . We can promise only one thing: we will

stay on the street. To us football is politics;

politics is in everything. That’s why we tackle

politics”, Ahmed explained.

Though they oppose the regime, the soccer fans are

not partisans of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Many

of us are Islamists. I am a member of the Brotherhood,

but that is not why we supported the Brotherhood. We

don’t want to be inside the Brotherhood or the

system. We supported Morsi not because he was a

brother but because we wanted a revolutionary

force to be in government. The Brotherhood was

the only revolutionary force that had a candidate

and popular support and was part of the [2011]

revolution”, Ahmed said. Since there is now no

alternative in sight to the military dictatorship,

Ahmed and his fellow fans will go their own way.

 

B

ack in the early 20th century, celebrations of Al

Ahli’s victories by anti-colonial and anti-monarchical

soccer fans often exploded into anti-British protests.

Twelve years after the club’s establishment,

university student fans led anti-British demonstrations

during the 1919 revolution. That uprising, fuelled by

deep-seated resentment of British manipulation of

the economy, the heavily British-staffed

bureaucracy, and the war-time requisitioning of

Egyptian assets, led to Egypt’s independence three

years later.

The chants of protesting student soccer fans a

century ago reverberate today in updated form in

universities that have become security force-controlled

fortresses and in flash protests in popular

neighbourhoods. Almost a hundred years ago, students

adapted a song written by Sayed Darwish, an Egyptian

singer and composer widely viewed as the father of

Egyptian popular music:

“We are the students

We don’t care if we go to prison, nor do we care

about the governorate.

We’re used to living on bread, and sleeping with

no blankets

Al Ahli against the British Rule.”

Today they proclaim that “the students are

back,” a slogan inspired by a song by Imam

Mohammed Ahmed Eissa, a composer and singer

known for his political songs that focus on the plight

of the poor.

Students shaped Egypt’s history again later in the

20th century, by rejuvenating the Muslim

Brotherhood in the 1970s. The Brotherhood had

been withering under a brutal crackdown by Gamal

Abdel Nasser that had forced many of its

leaders to go underground or leave the country, but

after Nasser died in 1970, it slowly began to revive.

“Even as they rebelled against the tenets of Nasserism,

the youth of this period were the products of its

socioeconomic policies, from increased urbanization

to greater access to education. . . . The real story

of this era revolves around a vibrant youth

movement based in Egypt’s colleges and

universities,” said historian Abdullah

Al-Arian, author of Answering the Call,

Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, in an

interview with the online publication Jadaliyya.

For men like Ahmed and Salheen, however, the

modern youth movement is less about the

Brotherhood and more about aligning Islamists

and revolutionary forces that run the gamut

from liberal to conservative, from left to right, and

from secular to religious in a united front against

autocracy. “It’s not about Morsi; we have bigger

fish to fry than Morsi. Most of us no longer believe

in the slogan in returning Morsi to office.

Thousands are suffering. I don’t give a damn

about Morsi. Anything is better than this regime.

There are two approaches, the reformist and the

revolutionary one. We have seen dramatic shifts since

  1. Both Tahrir Square and Sisi’s junta were

dramatic twists. I and many like me believe that

another twist is possible even if that will take time,”

Salheen said.

The uphill battle of soccer fans and students for

political change is not only hampered by the

government’s relentless repression. It also is

stymied by the widespread apathy of an

Egyptian public disillusioned by the failure of the

2011 revolt to bring reform, tired of political

volatility, and desperate to see their country return to

stability and trickle-down economic growth. These

Egyptians may not be starry-eyed about Sisi’s

ability to deliver, but they see no viable alternative.

As a shopkeeper in one of Cairo’s upmarket

neighborhoods put it, “The protesters have nothing to

offer. The government will crush them. Sisi is not

perfect, but he’s all we have. What we need is

stability to turn the economy around. If that means

putting people in jail, so be it.”

 

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International

Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the

Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and author of the blog

The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a forthcoming book with the

same title